6 reasons Chrysler owned the concept car game in the 1990s
Between 1987 and 1998, before it merged with Daimler-Benz, Chrysler introduced over 50 concept cars across all four of its divisions. What a time it was.
The K-Car was dead. After a decade of cranking out the things, nearly going bankrupt in the process, the “House That Lee Iacocca Built” was ready for something new. Behind designer and former engineer Tom Gale, president Bob Lutz, and product development executive Francois Castaing, Chrysler pulled itself out of near-certain death into a decade of attention-grabbing concepts that actually translated to production. These five concepts might seem familiar, but only because of how long we’ve known all those late-20th century Mopar products.
And maybe it was the decade itself, a decade that proved fertile for wild-eyed dreaming—long after the constricting safety and emissions fretting of the ’70s, long after oil crises and 5-mph bumpers, and long, low wedges. The ’90s proved to be a renaissance of automotive thinking, embodied in concepts, and Chrysler was no exception. It was all the optimism and aerodynamics and future-tech eagerness of the ’80s, but with computers.
Lamborghini Portofino, 1987
The renaissance began here. The Portofino wasn’t so much a sedan as it was a long and curvy jellybean, with four skyward scissor doors and rear-engined motivation. And when it debuted in 1987, it didn’t even wear a Chrysler badge. Through chairman Iacocca’s K-Car-fueled finagling, Chrysler ended the “Decade of Excess” with stakes in Gulfstream Aviation, various defense contractors, American Motors, and Lamborghini. (Barely half a decade earlier, Iacocca had quipped that a similar Italo-American lashup was the prettiest Italian to arrive stateside since his mother.) Somewhere in a corner of the Chrysler design studio languished a clay design study called the Navajo. Lutz pushed for the design to be shown onstage, and somewhere along the line it gained a Lamborghini Jalpa’s stretched chassis, 3.5-liter V-8, five-speed manual, and an unfortunate Italian nickname that roughly translated to “Big Potato.”
Within the next three years the Portofino influenced three more concept cars, all variations on the theme—the Millennium, which predicted front-facing radar, infrared cameras, and even driver alcohol detection as early as 1989; the two-door Intrepid, which predicted not its namesake production sedan but instead the Dodge Stealth; and the Eagle Optima, which laid the groundwork for the Dodge Intrepid, the Chrysler Concorde, and all that cab-forward packaging goodness that defined the company. And perhaps more importantly: moving away from Iacocca and his Old World proclivities, all wire wheels and upright landau tops, the Portofino represented the changing of the guard to him to Gale and Lutz, and to a neon-colored Nineties future.
Dodge Viper, 1989
Chrysler’s most audacious concept was also its simplest. Big engine up front, wheels driving the rear, tiny roadster body, two seats, not much else. Lutz and Gale were obsessed with Cobras. And the Viper was nothing if not Dodge’s interpretation—long, low, wide, and menacing, with a 10-cylinder truck motor and a hodgepodge of parts. To Wall Street bankers and members of the media who didn’t know what was coming, it was outrageous. And against all odds, Castaing put it into production with hardly any changes. It was the only thing anyone talked about at the 1989 North American International Auto Show, the astonishing concept car from a beleaguered company that showed, according to Lutz, “that we weren’t going down without a fight.”
Plymouth Voyager III, 1990
A year later, at the same auto show, journalists who were still swayed by V-10-powered roadsters instead witnessed this: a twin-engine, eight-wheeled, propane-powered minivan with a detachable “command module” whose designers were inspired by a Bond villain’s yacht.
Reportedly, Lutz had pitched the car-within-a-car concept to every company he worked at. It had been rejected from BMW, Opel, GM, and Ford. And in 1990, Chrysler finally built it. The removable front half was powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that burned propane, while its rear module contained a 2.2-liter gasoline-fueled unit as well as room for five more people. There was no chance in hell Lutz expected it to be built. But hey, why not? People noticed. Said Lutz: “It was a concept car that only those crazy guys at Chrysler would do.”
Jeep Jeepster, 1998
Seemingly every other concept car in the ’90s debuted around one achingly simple goal: to hit the beach, baby. Witness the 1989 Pontiac Stinger, a lurid green lifestyle machine with detachable coolers and camping tables, and waterproof seat cushions that could double as beach chairs. You could also peep the press photos for the vaguely dolphin-shaped Citroën Berlingo Coupé de Plage of 1996, which features a tanned, smiling couple with no cares in the world other than how good they look in Speedos. To this end, Jeep resurrected the Jeepster name, built a slinky Wrangler with a hot-rod stance, stuffed a 300-horsepower V-8 under the hood, and photographed it on a beach. An electronically-adjustable suspension allowed it to traverse said beaches, and a retractable roof slid across the top and into the trunk. Maybe the world wasn’t ready yet for an off-road sports car—but with AMG-powered SUV-coupes battling BMW X6Ms across 10-lane freeways today, maybe a sporting Wrangler could make a comeback.
Chrysler Chronos, 1998
Tom Gale is an old-school kinda guy. No, not like Iacocca. More so from the ’30s to the ’50s—which explains the slew of Chryslers he oversaw like the Atlantic, an Art Deco Talbot-Lago for the modern age, or the Phaeton, which draws from Chrysler’s own Newport Dual Cowl Phaeton from 1941. But arguably the finest interpretation, and least slavish to history, would be the Chronos, which debuted at the 1998 North American International Auto Show. With a minimalist interior, sharp-edged haunches, and intricate surface detailing, the Chronos draws from the 1953 Chrysler d’Elegance concept by Ghia without looking too much like it. Oddly, its V-10 engine wasn’t a Viper engine but a Jeep V-8 with two more cylinders. Still, according to Lutz, it was the most production-ready one of the three. That checks out. Straighten the lines and it’s basically the 300C.
Honorable Mention: Dodge T-Rex
Perhaps predicting the Viper-powered SRT-10, the Mercedes G-Wagen 6×6, and the testosterone-fueled culture of aggressive male hubris, Dodge’s T-Rex concept debuted at the 1996 SEMA show. All six wheels are bolted to a Delphi-developed air suspension, and the locking tandem rear axles were cleverly developed from off-the-shelf components. “Driving a vehicle like T-Rex is like a birthday, Christmas, and the lottery all rolled into one big package,” Four Wheeler Magazine wrote in 1997. Chrysler can tell you that T-Rex stands for “Technology Research EXperimental,” but the only experimentation that’s going on here is seeing how many cans of Surge the driver could chug on the way to Ozzfest.